NJ: Restaurants

Best dishes: of 2015

  Orvieto

Putting together a year-end wrap-up list like this is sort of a pain-in-the-ass, I've come to realize. I have to figure out what dishes I want to include, find a photo, remember something halfway interesting or at least accurate to say about the dish, type it all in, spellcheck, look up web sites, etc. It takes a lot time, and at the end of the day very few people care what I put into my face. And I'm sure as shit not getting paid for it. But, it's a nice walk down memory lane for me, so once I get going, sifting through the photos and thinking about the experiences, it turns out to be quite a lot of fun, as I ignore the reality that you may not give a toss about any of it.

But then I have to type words and stuff, and I put it off for 3 weeks. It turns into a task. A task that I just recently tackled.

So why isn't this list New Jersey-focused you didn't ask and probably didn't even wonder? Well I'll tell ya. I used to include only New Jersey/NYC restaurants in these lists (I think), but I've been told that there is some value to some people to include stuff from other places. The fact that many of the dishes on this list are from outside of New Jersey shouldn't be a surprise. When I travel, I'm obviously carefully picking restaurants that I think will be outstanding. And let us not ignore the fact that when you're traveling, things just taste better. New experiences put more lead in my pencil than anything. When I'm stuck in New Jersey, conversely, I don't spend enough time eating out, and too often go back to the same places where I know I can get a good meal. But, there are several restaurants on this list within a stone's throw of New Jersey, so even if you don't ever plan on leaving the Garden State, perhaps something on this list will appeal to you.

Enough explaining. On with it.

Here's a list of exceptional dishes that I enjoyed in 2015. In no particular order other than perhaps chronological.

 

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Momma's Boy Burgers: A Shake Shack-ish place in Wayne, NJ

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It's beyond evident that Shake Shack was an inspiration for the people who opened Momma's Boy, a burger/hot dog joint in Wayne, NJ. It's clear right down to the wood/metal interior and the logo. And who can blame them for taking some cues from a place like Shake Shack. Shake Shack does a pretty damned good job at selling hamburgers and fries.

The people behind Momma's Boy were certainly paying attention when they pulled this place together.  The burger is very similar to the burger at Shake Shack. Same griddled potato roll, same style of "special sauce" (may0/ketchup-based), same type of melty American cheese, and the same size. But all of that means nothing if the burger meat isn't tasty, and the execution is flawed. Do they pull it off?

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Joyce Chinese: River Edge, NJ, the same as it used to be: excellent

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From the various rumblings on the web claiming how Joyce Chinese, the barely 2-year-old Sichuan restaurant in River Edge, NJ, "isn't as good as it used to be," you'd think they changed the menu and dumbed down the food to appeal to bland American tastes. From my admittedly unscientific analysis, I conclude that that's all a bunch of cahcah (cahcah means crap). The restaurant continues to serve mind- and tongue-numbingly good Sichuan food.

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Novo Mediterranean: Ridgewood, NJ [CLOSED]

Update (2017/7): Novo had been sold and closed. A bit loss for Ridgewood's dining scene.

North Jersey has no shortage of restaurants focusing on what might be considered "Mediterranean cuisine." Ridgewood alone boasts several, ranging from good (Lisa's Mediterranean and Mediterraneo), to cookie-cutter (casually glances at It's Greek To Me). So when I saw another restaurant billing itself as "Mediterranean" was opening on Chestnut Street, I wasn't overcome with anticipation. In fact, I was only vaguely interested in the prospect. I'm here to tell you that I was a moron.

After my first meal at Novo Mediterranean, I proclaimed it "excellent," "one of the most exciting new restaurants in the area," and noted that it "has potential to become a favorite." 

After the next meal I upped the ante, stating "Chef Kahlon is a stone cold killer," and "serious effing business here."  It took me a while, but I am no longer (as much of) a moron. Novo is, indeed, irrefutably, one of the most exciting new restaurants to hit North Jersey in a long time. After three meals it is, without a doubt, a favorite. I cannot imagine ever tiring of Chef Kahlon's cooking--although his dashing good-looks are starting to grate on me.

I should talk about the food.

Novo bread

The first thing that hit our table was a loaf of house-made bread. A steaming log of olive oil coated, airy bread, sprinkled with sea salt. The bread alone is reason to return. I can't imagine how good a sandwich made with this stuff would be. Throw some ham in there and call it a day. If at the moment that bread hits the table you don't realize that you're in the hands of an excellent chef, you'll only have consider the punch of flavor packed into house-made za'atar to be convinced. I couldn't figure out what was in it, and I don't care; some things are too good to ponder. 

I'm bloviating enough as it is, and I know you people have a very short attention span, so I'll just move on to some photos and brief comments.

Novo salad

This salad was popping-bright, with crunchy, fresh vegetables, appropriately dressed, and adorned with fried chickpeas and shaved cheese. This dish may very well encapsulate Chef Kahlon's approach to cooking. Lots of exciting acid, herbs, fresh ingredients, and textural contrast. He cooks like I like to eat.

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Seoul Galbi Korean BBQ: opening in Paramus

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Update: it's open.

It seems like forever ago that the Korean restaurant on Paramus Road, in Paramus, closed. I forget the name, but it was largely unexceptional, and a bit of a dump.

It didn't take too long for work to begin on the empty building, and that work has been going on for quite some time. Over a year I'd say. They gutted the place, and I'm guessing invested in everything from a new roof to a new kitchen. All along yielding no hint as to what type of restaurant might be moving in.

I kind of thought it would be an upscale Greek fish restaurant, what with that kind of money being poured into the structure (not to mention the liquor license). I thought wrong.

Indeed there's now a new sign on the building announcing Seoul Galbi Korean BBQ. Korean wouldn't necessarily be my first choice for this space, but it's certainly a good thing overall. Anything but an Italian-American restaurant, quite frankly, would be fine with me. Another bullet dodged.

While the idea of a Korean restaurant with a liquor license doesn't really excite me (I know of few Korean restaurants with interesting beer lists or cocktail programs), I did see a bunch of new grill hoods being placed over each of the tables. So they've got that going for them. 

I'm looking forward to taking my first slab of short rib and throwing it on the flame, with an OB Lager I assume.


A quick peek inside Fish Ridgewood: Ridgewood, NJ

Fish Ridgewood, which is bound to open some point this year in the old Bank of America building, has been very open to sharing pictures of the progress on their Facebook page. But that didn't stop me from poking my nosy face in there to take a few pics.

As expected, their goal of opening "mid-May" wasn't realistic, or met. But I'll hold tight, all the while hoping that the place will be exceptional. I have a really good feeling about it. At the very least it should look stunning.

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Wolfgang's Steakhouse: Somerville, NJ

Wolfgangs steak for two

A sunny day and a restaurant filled with windows is the ideal scenario to snap a few pics of food. Nothing beats all of that natural light for sharp, brilliant, clear photos.

Unfortunately for me and you, my cohorts picked the darkest table in the place for our lunch. It was literally the only table in the restaurant without a light fixture over it. I know this because I'm obsessed with such things, and checked. And so, the photos here suck even more than usual. But I will soldier on, because this is important business here.

By now we all know the story of Wolfgang's. Wolfgang was "head waiter" at Peter Luger for years, opened up his own place on Park Ave South in Manhattan, essentially with the same exact menu as Luger, went on to open another restaurant in Tribeca, and then I blinked and he's got places all over the globe. Including, curiously to moi, Somerville, NJ. He was so darned busy opening restaurants that he forgot to grab the .com domain. .net is so silly.

We ordered a chiefly typical meal here: bacon, oysters, steak for two, creamed spinach, German potatoes.

Wolfgangs bacon

The bacon is as good as it is at any of the Luger clones. Here's the thing about that bacon: it's just bacon. It's hardly an exceptional product. It is from the belly of the hog. It's not "Canadian bacon" (an actual thing), regardless of what the menu says or how often clueless food writers perpetuate that ridiculous falsehood. It's bacon. It's good because it's salty and smoky and fatty. And I have no problem with that reality.

You'll not find an exciting selection of oysters at Wolfgang's. The menu says "oysters." In the NYC area, that typically means Blue Point (Blue Point must produce an awful lot of oysters, considering how many menus they turn up on). Of course, if you mention oysters to your server, they'll likely kick into up-sell mode. "We can make a nice seafood tower for you,"  to which I typically respond "would you please just screw the fuck off? Thanks."

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Ho-Ho-Kus Inn & Tavern: Ho-Ho-Kus, NJ

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Ho-Ho-Kus Inn continues to amaze me. In a "why did I return" way. A recent visit (to the "tavern," not the formal dining room) proved baffling and frustrating on too many levels.

Let's start with a cocktail.

The cocktail list consists of maybe four or five drinks. Hopefully you're not too concerned with money, because there are no prices. You'll just have to guess. We ordered something billed as a Tequila Old Fashioned. Ostensibly, this would be an Old Fashioned made with tequila instead of whiskey. Good in theory I suppose.

An Old Fashioned, to my mind, is simply whiskey, sugar, and bitters. Perhaps a garnish of fruit. Yet in this version, there's lime juice.  When I saw "lime juice" in the list of ingredients, I knew I had to ask if it was fresh lime juice. The friendly bartender said that she could put fresh lime in the drink if I wanted. Now I was really curious. "What would you put in it if I didn't ask?" She showed me this plastic bottle of neon green lime juice cordial from the rail. Good grief, why does a place of the level of Ho-Ho-Kus Inn even have that stuff, much less use it in one of their featured cocktails. Why? Because it's amateur hour here. Twenty-four-seven.

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Jockey Hollow: Chris Cannon's mansion restaurant in Morristown, NJ

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People had me convinced that I was supposed to know who Chris Cannon is. I had no idea. I read an article about this NYC restaurateur in the New York Times some months back, but didn't commit the information to memory. By the time I got around to sitting at one of the three bars at Jockey Hollow, I had forgotten that Cannon was a partner at L'Impero--one of my favorite NYC restaurants back in the day. Frankly, who cares. The restaurant is either good, or not good. While I can't judge a restaurant on one lunch visit (and not even in the dining room), I got the feeling that they're trying really hard at Jockey Hollow, are capable of producing some fine food, but have room for improvement.

How do you get in this place?

I don't know if it was the snow and the cold and the lack of visible signage, but the whole shebang looked desolate and closed when I pulled up. I knew there was a parking garage in the back of the mansion, so I figured that was a good a place to start as any. From the garage a quick elevator ride took me right to the Vail Bar, where I was greeted by a friendly bartender and a surprisingly bright and cheery space. My fear of dark woods and a clubby, stuffy bar melted away.

The Jockey Hollow complex has three bars. The front of the mansion, which is where the main entrance is, houses a dining area and the Oyster Bar--a sleek, modern space with a long bar displaying lots of wine (and oysters). The Vail Bar, just behind the Oyster Bar toward the back of the mansion, is a bit more casual, a bit more prohibition-era, with a long bar displaying lots of booze. I like looking at booze almost as much as I like drinking it, so I advised my girlfriend to meet me there. (The third bar, in the basement, is the Rathskeller, a space for private parties, which I'm told is also open to the public on Friday and Saturdays.)

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Refreshingly, menus are presented on iPads. This means that everything you need to know is right in your hands. No dicking around asking for the cocktail list. No having the bartender recite the beer list (if I never have to sit through "Bud, Bud Light, Yuengling, Sam's Summer..." again in my life I'll be grateful). All of the information. In your hand. What a concept. Everything, with the exception of the quite wide and deep wine list. The wine list is printed and separate. The wines-by-the-glass, I would argue, should be on the iPad as well. Maybe they'll figure that out at some point.

While we're on wines-by-the-glass, I will note that the selection is long and varied. So much more than your too-standard three flavors of New World Chardonnay that most restaurants seem to implement (if I never hear the words "I'll have a Chardonnay" again in my life I'll be grateful).

The menu is broken down into sections, as you might expect, including crudo, raw bar, appetizers, entrees, salumi/cheese, and a prix fixe. Lots to choose from here, and more than a few things read really well.  We landed on some crudo and entrees.

But first, a cocktail...

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Bogie's Hoagies in Hawthorne, NJ: the best sub shop for miles

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Bogie's Hoagies has been quietly sitting in a nondescript strip of stores on Lafayette Ave in Hawthorne for some years now. I've driven past the place countless times, never thinking the sub shop behind the door could be anything other than mediocre. I have recently come to learn that this couldn't be further from the reality. I sure do love being wrong.

Bogie's Hoagies, to break it down for you, is simply the best sub shop for miles, and certainly one of the best sub shops that I've ever visited. There's so much that they are doing right that it's a bit mind-boggling. 

The place is essentially a sandwich shop, but it's run like a restaurant. The owner, who has owned and run full-service restaurants in the past, has been present every time I visit. He wears crisp, clean Chef's whites, and seems to be very much engaged in the operation.

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